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Shields, Brooks on Political Shakeup for Democrats

January 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnist Mark Shields, David Brooks break down the news of the week, including the outcome of the Massachusetts special election and Obama's tough sell on health care reform.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how much of this unsettling is the result of Scott Brown of Massachusetts?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a lot. I mean, there’s been, as David said, a lot of disquiet about the bailouts and things like that. But I think privately, most members thought that Bernanke is a hero, that he got us through a recession. Frankly, he did a lot of things, transferring money to Wall Street, that the Senate knew they had to do, but they wanted somebody to blame.

But now they are running scared. I was up on Capitol Hill this week, and the atmosphere is unbelievable. There’s real panic. There’s anxiety. It’s sort of every man for himself. Every single person thinks, “I could lose my job,” every single person. And, so, that’s…

JIM LEHRER: Republican, Democrats, everybody?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, maybe less Republicans. They are more into the gloat mode.

JIM LEHRER: Less Republicans, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: But, nonetheless, that is creating a psychological dynamic which has turned a lot of people into Ron Paul, which is sort of what this is. A lot of serious people suddenly think, oh, if I bash the Fed, I can go home and say, oh, I told those Wall Street types.

I think it is incredibly irresponsible. But, if you go up there and sense the psychological dynamic, it could spin wildly in many different directions.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same connections, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim, I think there has been a large number of Democrats who have been urging the White House to take this tack, to become more populist, to become — to distance themselves from what they see as the excesses of Wall Street, noting its unpopularity, and the widely held perception in the country among voters that the government’s policies that David mentioned, which were, namely, TARP, and the stimulus, and the trillion dollars for housing, the GM bailout, all helped major interests, particularly Wall Street, but didn’t help them.

And I think that the Massachusetts results, I, too, was up on Capitol Hill, and the anxiety…

JIM LEHRER: You found the same thing?

MARK SHIELDS: … the anxiety level — what David said is so true. Now it’s every man for himself.

Ordinarily, when we were operating as a caucus, and you have got a tough race, and David and I have what we think are safe races, or safer races, we will target some of our resources, some of our money, some of our help to you.

Now I think it’s going to be awfully tough to do that, because, on the Democratic side, it is. It’s every person for himself or herself. And the Republicans are emboldened. They are — they are not in a gloat-free zone. I mean, they are gloating.

Eric Cantor, the Republican leader, told me yesterday that he assumed they would assume the majority in November. Now, that’s a lot of seats to pick up.

JIM LEHRER: What about health care reform? Where does it fit in, if at all, in this now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Somebody asked me the day after, on Wednesday, do you think it will — health care reform will pass? And then I said 55-45 that it doesn’t.

Now, having seen and heard what I have heard the last few days, I would say 80/20 that it doesn’t.

JIM LEHRER: Eighty/twenty?

DAVID BROOKS: You just look at all the different avenues through which it could pass, the House passing the Senate bill, then breaking it apart, using reconciliation, all of them have severe barriers.

And then you get the general sense of anxiety. Gene Taylor, who is a Democrat from Mississippi — there was a big meeting of House Democrats. And as it was described to me, Gene Taylor said, “After Katrina, I had to tell the people in my district — I went to the beach — and I had to tell them, I’m sorry your house is gone. I’m sorry your house is gone.”

And then he said, before everybody, all the Democrats, “Madam Speaker, let me tell you, your house is gone,” referring to the health care bill. And that is the sentiment that one hears. Now, I wouldn’t say for sure, but if you talk about the consensus among the experts and people who follow this, a lot of people think it’s gone.

JIM LEHRER: You think it’s gone?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s in — pick your bad cliche, life support, intensive care. I think it is in serious — but the Democrats have a reality they have to confront. And that is, if it does go down, if there is no — nothing they can pass that can pass the test of being comprehensive health care reform, then they have failed on the president’s domestic initiative, the principal, the signature issue, the issue on which the president has told members privately “I would stake my presidency on this, and not even have a second term” to get this through.

JIM LEHRER: It was that important to him?

MARK SHIELDS: That important to him.

Now, that’s a failure. So, then you have got the Democrats not only charged with being too chummy with Wall Street, but in charge of the House, the Senate and the White House, and being incompetent, and not being able to deliver on anything.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now fit President Obama into this now in terms of the backlash, the populism and health care reform. And can he do anything about any of this, or is he another victim?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, this is the question. I mean, the president, for the first time — I mean, I think Democrats acknowledge, both in the administration and on Capitol Hill, and off, acknowledge that delay was a mistake, that this thing which stretched out over such an extended period of time.

As one of them said to me, Scott Brown never would have happened if we had done this in October, that — you know, passed it, but that — the White House let the 1,000 flowers bloom legislatively and the Congress work its will.

And the — so, the president in the last week inserted himself big-time last week in the meetings at the White House between the leadership to resolve these differences. He told them he wanted some of the special deals from the Senate knocked out, and made hard decisions.

But, you know, the question is, can he sustain that? Will he sustain it? And is the game worth the candle? I mean, can do it?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think it was — I don’t think it was the delay.

If you look at when the independents left the administration, it was between April and June. The number of independents — his support among independents dropped by 15 points. The number of people who said he was too liberal leapt by 18 points. I think that is when people began to flake off.

I think the problem was, Obama misread the country. He thought the country was in the mood for a New Deal-style big transformation. But, in fact, the country is extremely hostile and suspicious and distrustful of Washington. And centralizing power in Washington was a mistake. Being hyperactive was a mistake.

I think now he’s making two additional mistakes. One, he hasn’t shown any humility. The country is saying, listen to us, listen to us, listen to us. He hasn’t said, OK, I made a mistake, as Bill Clinton did, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did. Hasn’t done that.

Second, I don’t think the populism think works for him. He can go around…

JIM LEHRER: Why not? Why not?

DAVID BROOKS: He went to Harvard Law School. He went to Columbia University. He appointed Tim Geithner, Larry Summers. You know, that’s not who he is. He is a member of the establishment. He talks like it. He thinks like that.

I happen to have great respect for his analytical abilities and all that. That’s who he is. Don’t fake it. The lesson of Mitt Romney, don’t fake it. Be who you are. And it just not going to work to fake it.

MARK SHIELDS: I — first of all, all great revolutions are led by aristocrats. That is the reality of history.

So, the idea that he went to Harvard Law School does not in any way preclude his leading a populist revolution. Populist has taken on a word among several of my colleagues in the press, not — at least one of whom is here, that it’s faintly…

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about — you’re talking about what’s-his-name over here.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s faintly disrespectful. It’s disrespectful. It’s dumb. It is uneducated. It is unsophisticated.

I mean, there are rights and there are wrongs. And I think what the president has lacked, quite honestly, has been an emotional response that people in the country feel.

JIM LEHRER: Whether it’s populism or anything else, just a…

MARK SHIELDS: And they understand his pain — they understand the pain, I mean, what Bill Clinton could do.

I mean, the people of this country are going through a time of terrible, terrible pain, uncertainty, anxiety. And I think the president has to identify with that. I agree on his appointments, certainly don’t suggest that this is an Andrew Jackson of the 21st century.

DAVID BROOKS: Let me defend myself from the Marie Antoinette charge.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, populism and elitism are the same thing. They are class prejudices, crude class prejudices that so-and-so, because they are uneducated, is less worthy, or so-and-so, because they are richer or more educated, is unworthy.

They are both crude, crass class prejudices which people can play into or not play into. Redistributing money down is not necessarily populist. But saying all bankers are evil is populist. And, so, it’s the crude class prejudice that I think that people are now beginning to play into.

And the only people, by the way, who play into it are phonies. People who are genuinely coming from the working-class or representing or feel in their bones working-class values generally don’t play those games. Their attitudes are much more complicated and much more real than the fake, “Oh, all those Wall Street types.”

That is just too generalized.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with David’s counterfeit distinctions here.

I mean, remember that this — this establishmentarian, this president of the Harvard Law School, what did he do? He became a community organizer. I mean, that’s what he did. He turned down Supreme Court clerkships. I mean, he really did go back and try and make a difference, I mean, so there is — there is that in him.

I would just like to see — Robert Frost once said about Jack — to Jack Kennedy, be more Boston and less Harvard.

And Barack Obama is equally as complex and complicated as anybody else. And I would like to see him be more Chicago and less establishmentarian.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, also this week, the United States Supreme Court handed down this decision on campaign finance. Some people say it’s a huge catastrophe. Some people say it’s a blessing, a freedom of speech issue, a First Amendment issue.

A tragedy? A victory? How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: It is the single biggest decision the Supreme Court, politically, in my lifetime. Everybody I talk to who is involved in campaigns, who has raised money politically said — is terrified by it, in the sense…

JIM LEHRER: Terrified?

MARK SHIELDS: … its implications.

American corporations, by IRS’ judgment in 2005, are worth $23 trillion dollars. Barack Obama raised $800 million. Now, if we are — say I’m Goldman Sachs, and David is sponsoring legislation to get back my bonuses. And David’s got a safe district. I don’t have to go after David.

All I have to do is take somebody who is sponsoring, sponsoring David’s legislation, supporting David’s legislation, and I go in and spend $3 million and beat him. I have hanged that person. My lobbyist says, we’re going to stop this one way or the other. We will spend whatever we have. I don’t want to hurt you, David, but, I’m sorry, Shields just had to sacrifice his seat.

That is — the implications of this are absolutely unfathomable and they are terrifying.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it is a bad decision. I do — I think it will have a poisonous effect on political atmosphere, but for different reasons than most people that I have read and heard from.

First, I’m not convinced it will have a — it will totally change the landscape, because I’m not convinced a lot of corporations are going to want to have a political profile.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

DAVID BROOKS: Because you are a corporation. You want to sell everybody.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, why stick your neck out?

But I do think it will have this effect. What do corporations, when they go to Washington, what do they want? One, they want subsidies from Washington. Two, they want to crush small businesses who are hoping to compete with them by erecting regulatory hurdles.

So, I think they will use that money to try to essentially hurt small business, who don’t have lobbyists, don’t have money to spend. And I think both of those are very negative effects on the country.

I do not necessarily think it is great for the Republican Party and terrible for the Democratic Party, because when you look at who is willing to subsidize corporations and erect regulatory barriers, both parties actually do that. So, I think will have bad effects, but not necessarily partisan effects.

JIM LEHRER: When President Obama said yesterday, we’re going to do — I’m going to talk to Congress and we are going to have a forceful response, what can he do? What can anybody do about this, whether they like it or not?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the way that the opinion, the decision was written, it’s going to be awfully tough. I mean, they have made it constitutional…

JIM LEHRER: The Supreme Court of the United States has made a decision.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David, that there’s not too many options?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, people like Chuck Schumer are working on it, but it’s — from what I have read — and I don’t understand it completely — they are nibbling on the edges, rather than going at the core.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, it is — I’m serious — this is big-time. It really is. And the — just the presence of that kind of money, why would anybody volunteer in a campaign?

JIM LEHRER: Why do you assume — this is a question — David is going to ask you this question, but I’m going to ask it before he does.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. OK.

JIM LEHRER: Why do you assume that people will use it in evil ways, the money?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t find corporations, historically, in this country to have been altruistic agents.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they are altruistic when they make great products. I happen to like my iPod and all that kind of stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: I am talking about public policy.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree.

MARK SHIELDS: Public policy.

DAVID BROOKS: They try to stifle competition.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: That is what businessmen do.

MARK SHIELDS: And they — and they are not — and they don’t take a wide perspective. They don’t take — I didn’t see them — did you see the corporations really pushing for the civil rights acts? I mean, did you see them pushing for Americans With Disabilities Act? I missed that, I guess.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, David, it has really been nice chatting with you.